Eagle editorial: State budget could be worse

About the only good thing to say about next year’s state budget is that it could have been worse. And the blame for that falls squarely on Gov. Sam Brownback.

By signing unaffordable tax cuts last year, Brownback put state lawmakers in a corner. They either had to raise taxes or cut hundreds of millions of dollars more from the state budget, which was not realistic or acceptable.

It took 99 days (nine more than the 90-day allotment and 19 more than legislative leaders said would be needed) for lawmakers to agree to set the state sales tax at 6.15 percent instead of allowing it to fall to 5.7 percent on July 1 as promised. Along with a phasedown of income-tax deductions, the tax increase is expected to raise about $777 million over the next five years.

The extra revenue will help cover the shortfall created by last year’s tax cuts, but it won’t eliminate the state’s budget problems. Estimates show the state burning through its cash balances by 2018.

And that doesn’t factor in the likelihood that the Kansas Supreme Court will order an increase in K-12 funding of about $500 million.

Even with the tax increase, the budget includes damaging cuts to higher education (which Brownback vowed to avoid) and to the state’s corrections system. It also raids $300 million from the state’s transportation fund over the next two fiscal years.

Locally, the budget funds the affordable airfare program and the National Institute for Aviation Research and increases state funding for the Judge James V. Riddel Boys Ranch – all good news. However, it reduces support for the National Center for Aviation Training by $2 million – a cut made all the more painful because it was supported by Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, R-Andover, and by Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.

Brownback tried to put a positive spin on the tax plan, claiming that “it is an absolute tax cut.” But even his backers didn’t buy that.

“It is unfortunate that legislators chose to impose a higher sales-tax rate on Kansans,” said Jeff Glendening, state director of Americans for Prosperity-Kansas. (But will AFP and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce spend thousands of dollars next election blasting those who supported this tax increase, including Brownback?)

And even the plan to further reduce income-tax rates will be mostly offset by reductions to itemized and standard deductions, so many taxpayers won’t see lower income-tax bills.

Still, as bad as this budget is, it would have been worse if the Legislature had taken a hatchet to education and other essential state services. But that’s not saying much.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee